Free speech is messy in a democracy

More information about Occupy Sacramento can be found on its website,

As Occupy Sacramento moves into its third week, some people—say, for instance, the local daily and the city council—seem to be suffering from protest fatigue. After all, the protest is messy (despite the fact that protesters in Cesar Chavez Plaza have been cleaning up after themselves), and, gosh, if we let them protest 24 hours a day, won’t we have to let less savory characters do the same?

But that’s precisely the point. It’s easy to support freedom of speech when you buy ink by the barrel or have microphones and cameras at ready access for each and every one of your opinions. But the main thing protesters of Occupy Sacramento have to work with is their own bodies. A 24-hour protest is a pretty stark statement of how much the principles they are fighting for matter to them.

And if the Ku Klux Klan or anti-gay protesters or pro-life protesters or—gasp!—our homeless citizens are the next to protest 24/7 in front of City Hall? Good for them, as long as they keep it peaceful. That’s what free speech, the right to assemble and the right to petition for redress of grievances are all about.

Things are much messier in democracies than in dictatorships and oligarchies. Freedom of speech and the right to protest aren’t privileges that can be revoked; they are rights, and they are not reserved for causes of which we approve. The fear of potential problems is not an excuse for prior restraint on free speech—and our city council and local daily should be the first to say so.